We all know that sleep matters. When we sleep well, we’re refreshed and ready for all challenges that face us in life. Scientists and research continue to unveil just how extensive the benefits of sleep are.
What is Good Sleep Health?
Good sleep health has the following characteristics:
- Feeling sleepy at roughly the same time each night
- Falling asleep quickly
- Waking only infrequently and briefly during the night
- Waking at roughly the same time each morning
- Feeling that sleep was restorative
- Feeling energetic and positive during the day
Your sleep health is therefore made up of several components – sleep duration, sleep quality, sleep timing, and sleep regularity. Scientists have found that each of these shapes how we look, feel, and function, as highlighted by the examples below:
Insufficient sleep increases food intake by roughly 250 calories per day, on average, without substantially affecting calories burned. Over time, this contributes to weight gain, which in turn increases the risk of diabetes and other diseases. On a less serious note, people find sleep-deprived individuals less facially attractive too – beauty sleep is real!
Sleep apnoea is probably the second most common sleep disorder. In it, the upper airway intermittently collapses during sleep, stopping breathing and leading to waking up and gasping for air. This phenomenon increases daytime sleepiness and compromises many aspects of vitality. Please note that since many people who have this disorder snore, lots of cases of sleep apnoea go undiagnosed, with people assuming that the snoring is benign.
Sleep timing & regularity
Shift work is a common example of irregular and suboptimal sleep timing, and shift workers are disposed to many health and safety issues, from depression to accidents.
These points illustrate the importance of individual components of sleep health. Note that the components interact, however. For example, even if you’ve been up for a long time, if you try to sleep at a time of day when your body’s clock isn’t promoting sleep, your sleep quality will likely be less than stellar. It’s, therefore, no surprise that the combination of all the components is probably more important for your overall health than anyone alone.
Collectively, this means you can improve your sleep and health by addressing issues with any one dimension of sleep health.
Key Tips for Better Sleep
- Save your bed for sex and sleep only
When you struggle to sleep, you spend lots of time awake in bed. Then, over time, you learn to associate being in bed with being awake and finding sleep elusive. This can lead to “conditioned arousal”, a phenomenon in which you might feel fatigued and sleepy shortly before bed but then feel wide awake and worked up when you get into bed.
To address this, you should spend less time being awake in bed. This begins with only using your bed for sex and sleep – no reading, no laptops or mobile phones, no TV, and no long or challenging conversations with your bed partner.
This tip is especially relevant at this time of year. Since it’s cold and most of us are concerned about our energy bills, there might be lots of people currently spending time awake in bed simply to stay warm. If this is true of you, there are alternatives. For example, you might simply wrap up with more layers when not in bed. Or, if you crave the warmth of being under your duvet, you could sit with your duvet over you while sitting upright on your sofa. Then, when you’re sleepy, take your duvet with you to bed.
- Only go to bed when you’re sleepy
Related to the first tip, if you’re not sleepy when you go to bed, you’ll just spend more time in bed awake, perpetuating sleep difficulties. So, if you’ve been going to bed early because your bed partner wants to sleep or because you’ve slept poorly of late and want to catch up on sleep, delay your bedtime to when you’re truly sleepy in order to get the best night’s sleep.
- Use the “20-minute rule”
When you do go to bed if you’ve been in bed for roughly 20 minutes and haven’t nodded off, get out of bed, go to a different room, and do something relaxing in dim lighting until you feel sleepy again. You might, for instance, read, meditate, or listen to relaxing music in your living room at this time. Repeat this as many times as necessary throughout the night. And don’t watch the clock to see if it’s been 20 minutes – monitoring the time while in bed tends to lead to “clock-watching anxiety”, which can prolong the time taken to fall asleep.
- Match your time in bed to your actual sleep need
If you have insomnia, you might spend lots of time in bed but not get that much actual sleep. Perhaps you’re in bed from 10pm until 7am, a 9-hour sleep opportunity. However, you only get 6 hours of actual sleep. In this instance, you’ll likely benefit from taking your true sleep duration, adding 30 minutes to this number, and then spending this long in bed. you would put this to use by delaying your bedtime rather than advancing your wake time. In this example, you’d start going to bed at 12.30am and set an alarm for 7am.
Alternatively, you might be someone who has fine sleep quality but who doesn’t get enough sleep simply because you don’t spend enough time in bed. Maybe you go to bed at 11pm, barely stir while in bed, and then rise to an alarm at 5.30am, feeling tired and as if you could have done with another hour of sleep. In this scenario, it’s best to prolong the time in bed.
Different components of sleep matter interact with each other, and all influence your long-term health. The good news is that if you improve your sleep, you will substantially lift how you feel, your health, and your physical and cognitive performance.